At some point in the very early nineties, a new McDonald's restaurant opened up within walking distance of my house. This was a welcome addition for my siblings especially, as the only fast-food restaurants within walking distance were Arby's (which was much too expensive) and White Castle (which they abhorred). Both of those establishments were several blocks farther down the road, and in the opposite direction, from the McDonald's, and so it made sense that my brothers and sister would gravitate toward it; one of my brothers even got his first job there, and met the mother of his first child. Me? I was a library kid, through-and-through, and the local library was closer to Arby's and White Castle, and so naturally I developed a fondness for the latter, much to the distress of my lower intestinal tract.
And yet it's the McDonald's that I remember with some fondness. Partially this is because I have memories of it at all. It was at that McDonald's, for example, that I first danced with a girl. I was in the second or third grade, and it was the birthday party for a girl whose name I can't recall now. What I do remember is that she was very, very tall, probably the tallest girl I had ever seen. That of course resulted in quite a bit of teasing from our contemporaries. I was also teased quite a bit, mostly because I was the kind of kid who would eat worms. I'm not saying that I ate worms; I didn't; I was just the kind of kid of whom you would expect that kind of thing. Anyway. Toward the end of the night, the DJ put on a slow song with the idea that we boys and girls would pair off and dance. Very few of them wanted to do that, and I was pretty sure that none of them would have wanted to dance with me - I was, again, the weird kid - and it seemed that none of them wanted to dance with the birthday girl - she was, again, very tall. I don't remember if I asked her or if she asked me, but I danced with the birthday girl in the Play Place of that McDonald's. Whereas the closest thing I have to a childhood memory of White Castle involved me puking and having diarrhea at the same time.
A big part of the charm of that McDonald's though was its décor. It was called The Fifties McDonald's, and allegedly had a 1950s design and theme. I say allegedly because this theme was very haphazardly applied. Yes, there was a big statue of Elvis Presley, and behind him, a statue of Superman flying through a glass plate depiction of Metropolis. Superman incidentally was mostly of note because whoever sculpted the statue had given him a rather lumpy groin that was an object of fascination and ridicule for generation after generation of preteen.
The walls were peppered with movie posters, records, even comic books, and it's here that the theme got a little sloppier: Zombies of the Stratosphere was from 1952, but Saturday Night Fever certainly wasn't; the Beatles weren't a thing until 1960; it was nice to see Laurel and Hardy, but they were really creatures of the thirties and forties. You could nitpick the thing to death, and Mary and I often did over a shared order of hot fries.
But in a way, that was part of its charm. The whole place had a sense of personality. In a way, the décor made us want to like it, and predisposed us to going to that McDonald's in particular, even when others may have been more convenient. That was especially true on Fridays, when local hot rodders and classic car enthusiasts would take over the parking lot to admire one another's fins and compare notes on getting the proper shine. That was irritating for a couple of folks who just wanted to get in, share some fries and soda, and get out. And yet even in our irritation, there was the sense that there was something special here; we couldn't imagine any other restaurant, let alone any other McDonald's, serving as a regular meeting place for classic car hobbyists. It lent something invaluable to the atmosphere.
You'll note the use of past tense. Late last year the restaurant was closed for renovations, and didn't open again until just a few days ago. Driving by over the last few months, we noticed that the outside had changed dramatically. The big retro sign was replaced with a sign that looked like every other McDonald's, and the vibrant pseudo-diner façade was changed to something that was faintly industrial, almost identical to the bank that was next to it. We wondered how much they were going to change the inside, and the other day when they reopened we found out.
Everything was gone. No Elvis, no Superman, no comic books that were published ten, twenty, even thirty years after the fifties had come to an end. No fake jukeboxes, no Zombies of the Stratosphere. And that in and of itself was okay, I think: it had had a good run. Change was expected, perhaps even warranted. The problem was that they stripped everything away and didn't put anything in its place. Mary described the ambiance as "cafeteria"; I'll be a little more generous and say that they were going for hipster-sterile.
Neither of those things are particularly inviting. Mary and I used to talk about the things that surrounded us: who is that actor?, did you ever see that movie?, what kind of car is that, the slightly turquoise one with the big fins?, and so on. Now all we have are bare tables, brown paneling, and austere chairs. Before, it was our McDonald's, and we were predisposed to like it; now, it's just another McDonald's, identical to the rest, existing only to sell burgers.
Of course that's all it was in the first place, and yet, in the service of selling those burgers, it also sold us and others on the idea of itself. The reason we liked the place had squat to do with its alleged fifties theme, and more to do with the fact that it actually had a theme - an identity - a personality - in the first place. One thing we're very conscious of as we run our business is that while we're selling games, we're also in some ways selling you on us. Individual games have been successful, and our reputation is built on the quality of those games, but our overall growth has been helped immeasurably by the fact that we've found ways to give you some sense of our personality, rather than being just another games company.